The following sermon was delivered at B'nai Shalom in West Orange, NJ on April 30th, 2011, the day after the media-saturated British royal wedding.
by Rabbi Aaron Liebman
Did you see the wedding? What did you think? Wasn't it beautiful? And how about those hats, weren't they something?
No, I won't be focusing my remarks today on these questions. What I do want to ask is why such questions are so interesting to us, and why they are the subject of so much public discourse. The answer is, of course, because William and Kate are royals. The fact that they are also young and beautiful doesn't hurt either, but the main thing that sets them apart is their royalty. So why are royals special? - It is something in their genealogy, their ancestral descent, which sets them apart as the highest form of aristocracy, or nobility. In Yiddish we might say that they have yichus. Now yichus isn't exactly nobility, because a family's yichus isn't set in stone and can change if a family member accomplishes something particularly noteworthy, but a good part of yichus is being a descendant of someone of renown. And to be a direct descendant of the king or queen of England, well that's as yichusdik as you can get.
The Talmud tells us a short story, an anecdote, that relates to this topic. The anecdote is barely two lines long, but it requires something of an introduction and a running commentary. In the late Second Temple period the Jews had an aristocracy of sorts, known as cohanim - priests. We still honor cohanim by reserving for them the first aliyah and such, but if you saw a cohen in the street today you probably wouldn't know it. In the late Second Temple period you would. The cohanim were true aristocracy: They were wealthier, they were better educated, and they were close to the reigns of power. Among the cohanim, the most noble position one could aspire to was the role of high priest - the cohen gadol - a position which bestowed on its bearer not only ritual honor and social prestige but also quite a lot of power and influence.
The cohen gadol's most visible and most honorific function was to perform the rituals of Yom Kippur. These rituals are spelled out in some detail in the Torah in the portion we read a couple of weeks ago, and in the Mishnah and Talmud in the tractate known as Masekhet Yoma. On Yom Kippur great masses would come to the Temple, where they watched the cohen gadol performing most of the elaborate rituals himself. The high point of the day was when the cohen gadol, alone, went in to the Holy of Holies to perform the ritual atonement for the entire people Israel. When the cohen gadol exited (if he exited alive and well) there was great happiness and celebration.
The Talmud in Masekhet Yoma relates how one Yom Kippur afternoon in the second half of the first century BCE, after the high priest had come out from the Holy of Holies and was the focal point of the great celebration, he was leaving the Temple followed by a large crowd. On the way they came upon Shma'aya and Avtalion, the two leading sages (that is, rabbinical scholars) of the generation, who were going off in another direction. At that point the crowd left the high priest and started following Shma'aya and Avtalion. The cohen gadol, we can well imagine, felt a bit miffed. So he called out to Shma'aya and Avtalion: "Peace be unto you, o descendants of the nations."
Now what I didn't tell you in my lengthy introduction was that Shma'aya and Avtalion were converts to Judaism, either themselves or their parents. Either way, they had no yichus to speak of. If anything, their status as converts was probably something that many people would have considered slightly shameful. (It's interesting to note that despite this they managed to become the most revered Torah scholars of their generation, and that we continue to celebrate them today whereas the nameless high priest in this story is all but forgotten, but that is another story). So Shma'aya and Avtalion had no yichus, while on the opposite end of the spectrum was the most yichusdik person in all of Israel - the cohen gadol. When the high priest called out to them he wasn’t just wishing peace upon them; he was also publicly calling attention to their purported shortcomings - "descendants of the nations." The high priest was annoyed that his own moment in the spotlight was cut short by the appearance of these two highly revered superstars, so he was putting them down!
Their response, also recorded in the Talmud, was to call back to him: "Peace be unto the descendants of Aaron who behave like Aaron, and not to the descendants of Aaron who don’t behave like Aaron." Let's take that apart: The descendants of Aaron are the priests, we know that, since all cohanim (at least since Second Temple times) trace their lineage back to the biblical Aaron. What does it mean to "behave like Aaron"? For that we have midrashim that fill in the picture. The Torah itself hints that Aaron was highly beloved by the people. What made him so beloved, the midrash says, was that he strove to reconcile people with each other, and we are told of the techniques he would use to bring together feuding friends and squabbling couples. How fitting that the person whose famous blessing culminates in peace, is the person who strove all his life to bring about peace.
So when Shma'aya and Avtalion called back to the high priest, they were sending a snub back to him. In essence they were saying: It doesn't matter who your parents are, it matters only how you act. You, most noble descendant of Aaron - are you just a descendant of Aaron, in which case you don't amount to much, or are you truly a student of Aaron, in which case you are deserving of high praise and the blessing of peace?
This same notion was repeated a generation later by the best-known student of Shma’aya and Avtalion, the great sage Hillel. Preserved in Pirkei Avot is Hillel's statement that one should aspire to be a student of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah. Please note: Be a student, not a descendant, of Aaron. This is not just a fuzzy and innocuous message about loving each other and pursuing peace; this is a statement of rebuke to those cohanim who think that their nobility of descent makes them better than everyone else. What really counts, what defines you as a person and makes you who you are, is not your nobility of descent or your family, but how you behave and what you do.
This connection, between the Talmudic anecdote and Hillel's statement, was first noted by Leopold Zunz nearly two centuries ago. But its message continues to reverberate with us today, since most mornings we repeat Hillel's famous statement in the form of a y'hi ratzon before psukei d’zimra (found in Siddur Sim Shalom). May we have the virtue of being disciples, not descendants, of Aaron. What counts is not our yichus, but our actions.
So let's revisit the original question: What about the royal wedding? I don't begrudge Kate and William their limelight, but I believe Hillel was correct that the true measure of a person's worth is not their ancestral lineage but what they do in life. I hope that they will use their celebrity to further increase kindness and happiness and well-being in the world, because their royalty per se is of no real consequence.
Personally, I am happy to be living in a country in which there is no royalty and no nobility, and where all men are believed to be created equal. This, I would suggest, is more in line with the Jewish way of thinking, as iterated by Hillel and his teachers. Shabbat shalom.